Facebook's historic university rollout caused a rise in depression
Mental Health Social Media Depression

Facebook's historic university rollout caused a rise in depression

Dr. Ángel V. Jiménez
Dr. Ángel V. Jiménez

In 10 seconds? Recent research has shown evidence of how the introduction of social media impacted mental health. Researchers tracked students of selected American universities during the rise of Facebook and found it caused an increase in mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

How do researchers know about the mental health problems of students during this period? The researchers used the most detailed data available about students' mental health in the US: 17 sequential waves of the National College Health Assessment. This dataset provides individual-level data about whether students in the sample had

  • experienced one of eight depressive symptoms (e.g., feeling very sad),
  • taken steps to address their symptoms (e.g. taking antidepressants),
  • experienced other four psychological conditions such as anxiety and bulimia.

The dataset also provides details about the situation of the student such as having a credit card debt, living off-campus, or their use of illicit drugs.

Interesting… but how do we know that social media was the cause? The progressive rollout of Facebook across American universities (between 2004-2006 after which anyone in the world could sign up) and the detailed information about students’ mental health allowed for the disentangling of cause and effect through the use of sophisticated statistical techniques such as “the difference-in-differences equation”. This technique is often used to estimate the effect of an intervention (e.g., raising the minimum wage) in one population in comparison to a similar population that is not affected by the intervention. In this case, the technique allowed to rule out stable mental health differences between universities or events outside the university that could affect all students in the sample in a similar way to avoid bias.

So, what? We’ve known for ages that social media affects mental health. During the period 2008 to 2018, there was an 83% increase in the amount of 18-23 years old who experienced major depression, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death among 15-24-year-olds. Because this increase in mental health problems among the youth temporally coincided with the diffusion of social media, some scientists have speculated that the rise of social media was at least one of the causes. Nevertheless, most of the research has only detected associations between variables related to social media use and mental health. That is, previous research could not explain what came first: if social media use increased mental health problems, or if mental health problems lead to increased social media use.

How bad was the impact of Facebook’s university rollout on mental health? The researchers came up with a rather concrete value: the equivalent of “22% of the effect” when one loses their job. When the length of exposure was taken into account, the researchers discovered that after 5 semesters of living with Facebook, the likelihood of a student being diagnosed with depression rose by 32%.

Potential negative effects of social media use: distraction, not dealing with difficulties, being cyberbullied, more time online than with real people, anxiety, depression. SourceL verywellmind

Did they manage to pinpoint how social media can increase mental health issues? The scientists suggest that different mechanisms were at play. For example, social media makes unfavorable social comparisons unavoidable. Users tend to portray themselves favorably in the content they post while seeking validation via ever-present popularity metrics, such as the number of likes and followers. Another mechanism at play according to researchers is that social media use could lead to behavioral changes that affect mental health. For example, social media could lead to procrastination, distraction, and worsening of academic performance, and this in turn might affect mental health. The researchers, however, only found support for the first mechanism: students becoming more prone to unfavorable social comparisons. For example, those who were living off-campus were more detrimentally affected by the Facebook rollout at their university.

OK, are there any positive mental health outcomes? Yes, some studies have found that social media use led to an improvement in mental health. For example, one study reported that less than one hour per day of social media use was associated with an increase in psychological well-being compared to no use at all. However, heavier social media use was associated with a decrease in well-being. Other studies have also found some associations with positive well-being. For example, receiving messages from people with whom users had a strong relationship increased wellbeing, while other uses such as browsing the feed or receiving likes did not. (Note: one of the authors of this study works for Facebook). Another study found that using social media for communication was associated with positive well-being but the use of social media for entertainment was not. In short, social media use seems to be beneficial for well-being if it is used in moderation and for active communication with significant others.

Social media is negatively affecting my well-being and productivity. What to do? If this is your situation, going off social for a month could help. One study asked participants to stop Facebook use for a month. This simple and time-limited intervention improved well-being and prompted participants to permanently cut down on Facebook use after the experiment. Using software to block social media has also shown an increase in productivity, especially for people with low consciousness and self-control.

How can the study be relevant if its main data is almost 20 years old?

This is an obvious question. Since then, other types of social media (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok) have spread, while Facebook and other platforms have gone through several updates, adding news feeds, targeted political and commercial content, and new policies regulating online behavior.

Indeed, not covering these developments is a limitation of the main research. However, the core function of social media is still the same.  Furthermore, some of these additions seem to have exacerbated, nor diminished, the effects of social media on mental health.

An important strength of the old data is that it was collected at a time when there were no other social media platforms available. Because of this, the scientists were able to compare the difference between using a new social media platform to not using social media at all.

Scientists cannot do this with new data. The best they can do is to conduct experiments in which they ask some participants to stop using social media for a while. However, this is a slightly different research question.

Ángel has distilled 8 research papers, saving you 28 hours of reading time.

The Science Integrity Check of this 3-min Science Digest was performed by Michael Eze.

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